“Back to Troubled Grounds: The Two Jakes” By Anees Aref

“You can’t forget the past…just as much as you can’t change it” –Jakes Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in The Two Jakes

The Two Jakes almost never happened. The sequel to the legendary 1974 film Chinatown (directed by Roman Polanski and written by Robert Towne) was a project doomed from the start, with creative clashes behind the camera, financial and legal entanglements as complicated as the film’s plot, and perhaps the curse that seems to afflict so many would-be successors to original classics. After over a decade of failed attempts, The Two Jakes was finally released in the late summer of 1990 to mixed reviews and weak box office returns, and has since been largely relegated to the scrapheap of Hollywood’s forgotten sequels. Alas, watching the film more than thirty years after its release revealed to this first-time viewer a hidden gem, rough around the edges, but with a shine that has aged quite nicely. Star/director Jack Nicholson and Towne managed to fashion another detective story of the neo-noir variety, this time dealing with a murder mystery revolving around Los Angeles oil and land. With a carefully rendered period setting and a plot unafraid of challenging the audience, The Two Jakes carries itself with a polished elegance that engrosses.

It was supposed to be a Chinatown reunion (of sorts) between Nicholson, Towne, and producer Robert Evans, conceived as early as the late 1970s under Paramount Pictures, according to the AFI catalogue’s featured history of the project. By then, Chinatown’s notorious director Roman Polanski was on the lam, having fled the country and a charge of unlawful sex with a minor. Moreover, by around 1984/1985 the trio had even formed a production company to independently get the sequel project rolling with Towne initially slated to direct his script, Nicholson reprising his role as private detective J.J. “Jake” Gittes, and Evans producing as well as playing the key supporting character of “Jake Berman” (which eventually went to Harvey Keitel). Evans envisioned it as a comeback project, so the story goes, having become something of an industry pariah after creative clashes with figures like Francis Ford Coppola, and alleged offset troubles from drug use to his name being linked to a murdered film financier. Evan’s life is a noir tale unto itself, but as to his starring in The Two Jakes, after some tests Towne had his reservations about the “kid” staying in the picture, which led to the firing of Evans shortly before filming was to begin.

After a host of other financial/legal/distribution complications, the production collapsed in mid-1985, remaining in limbo until it was resurrected a few years later by Paramount with Nicholson agreeing to direct as well as star in the plagued project. He would also do some rewrites on Towne’s screenplay, the rights to which Towne had already sold off (he’s still credited onscreen for the script), but which nevertheless appears to have caused a rift between the two colleagues.

To get to The Two Jakes’ story onscreen, it’s post-war Los Angeles, 1948. As the movie opens, we hear the familiar drawling voice of Jake Gittes (Nicholson), our old private investigator who reminds us his job is to “put people out of their misery” – meaning marriage, of course. Some dozen years or so since we last saw him, Gittes has moved up in the shamus business, overseeing his own agency, with a nice fiancée in waiting. We find a sharply dressed customer sitting uncomfortably in Gittes’ office, a property developer also named Jake – “How about that…two Jakes.” The business at hand concerns this other Jake, that is Jake Berman (played by Harvey Keitel), who’s being prepped by Gittes on how to respond when he catches his wife in bed with another man. Before we know it, a corpse turns up and a wire “recording” of the murder becomes a hot commodity which entangles Gittes in the affairs of a number of unsavory characters, including the victim’s hysterical widow, a shady oil baron, and Berman’s mysterious wife Kitty (Meg Tilly).

Looking back, 1990 could be described as a bottleneck moment for the crime and noir-tinged picture. You had compelling new spins on the gangster film, such as Martin Scorsese’s groundbreaking mob biopic Goodfellas, Abel Ferrara’s gritty King of New York, and the twisty prohibition tale of Miller’s Crossing from the Coen brothers. There was a revival of the past with Francis Ford Coppola’s sequel The Godfather Part III, as well as comic-book pulp from Nicholson’s buddy Warren Beatty with his Dick Tracy, which also had a rocky road to release after initially starting at Paramount. Like the Godfather sequel, The Two Jakes had the daunting task of following up on a classic, combining nostalgia and the curiosity of catching up with familiar characters in different circumstances.

Much as Chinatown explored the major role water played in the Los Angeles area’s economic/ecological development, The Two Jakes provides a glimpse at the great wealth generated by the Southern California oil business, forming quite literally the ground on which Los Angelenos walk.

And yet, there’s an enduring appeal to this kind of story, where a detective or similar “noir” archetype digs beneath the innocent veneer of people or places. This century has seen efforts such as 2006’s pair of Hollywoodland and The Black Dahlia, or the overlooked Edward Norton film Motherless Brooklyn (2019), which gave New York the “Chinatown” treatment, spinning a fictional tale out of real-life urban history. The lure of exploring the historic underbelly of these famed towns offers rich opportunities for serious-minded entertainment, as well as a reflection on the original sins underpinning the growth of great cities. Much as Chinatown explored the major role water played in the Los Angeles area’s economic/ecological development, The Two Jakes provides a glimpse at the great wealth generated by the Southern California oil business, forming quite literally the ground on which Los Angelenos walk.

The Two Jakes premise seems more spun from fiction however, in contrast to Chinatown’s very much historically-inspired story of the water that was “diverted” from the Owens River Valley region to Los Angeles, orchestrated by figures such as then L.A. Water Department Superintendent William Mulholland (this didn’t stop the county from naming a famous road after him). Incidentally, the year 1948–in which The Two Jakes unfolds–saw the discovery of a sizeable oil field in the old L.A. County city of Inglewood, which according to the Los Angeles Almanac website was the region’s second most productive through 2016. With recent California legislation seeking to gradually phase out oil drilling in the greater Los Angeles, The Two Jakes is a snapshot of a near-bygone era.

Besides evoking this urban past, a mournful, almost haunted quality runs through The Two Jakes. It’s as if the memory of Chinatown and the real-life events that followed permeated the film’s making. The earlier film is forever linked with the subsequent transgressions of its director Roman Polanski, much as the Evelyn Mulray affair of that story scars Gittes (Faye Dunaway briefly reprises her role as Evelyn here). Nicholson wears this emotional baggage in his performance, its power holding The Two Jakes together. Movies of today miss Nicholson, a star in the classic sense of the word who also had the chops of a committed character actor, charisma with depth. The wide, catlike grin alternated with a melancholy grimace, as if the pleasures of life couldn’t make up for its tragedies. Gittes embodies the noir detective faced with corruption and venality of his fellow man greater than we see in the classics. Gittes’s Los Angeles is built on theft, whether it’s water or oil. The glaring desert sun replaces the black and white shadows of classic noir, the former illuminating the city’s secrets in its rays.

With that being said, The Two Jakes seems unfocused at times, at least upon first viewing. The byzantine plot seems to spin on its wheels, whereas the earlier film masterfully built towards its bitter conclusion. Nicholson shows a fine eye as director though. The thick atmosphere helps to keep the tone steady and the performances on point. Nicholson has a strong cast surrounding him. Keitel is effectively shady as Berman; we can’t be sure of him. “You have no idea what you’re getting into,” he tells Gittes. Madeleine Stowe is dangerously sexy as the deranged Mrs. Bodine. Ruben Blades stands out as Berman’s gangster associate, Mickey. Brutal and magnetic, the self-styled Mickey could have his own movie. Other veteran pros like Eli Wallach, Frederic Forrest, and Richard Farnsworth populate the story, their chemistry at ease with Nicholson. Indeed, he managed to bring back some other characters from Chinatown, including Perry Lopez as now Captain Escobar, and James Hong as Kahn.

If a flawed film, it compels with great individual moments and fine craftsmanship, including beautiful production design and Vilmos Zsigmond’s lush photography. The themes and characters resonate emotionally, particularly the “two Jakes” of the title. Berman’s motives are complicated, and the story reaches a rather surprising resolution. Along with Nicholson’s steady performance, we’re on the hook as we travel around town with Gittes, uncertain of the danger but trusting he’ll do the right thing when no one else seems to. It isn’t Chinatown, but that was unlikely. Given its own pleasures and behind-the-scenes history, The Two Jakes occupies a worthy place in Hollywood lore.

Anees Aref is a writer on film, history, and politics based in the Los Angeles area who has published abroad as well as in the United States. He regularly contributes to Film International.

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